My stomach and I aren’t always on the best terms. Over the years, we’ve bickered a lot. Sometimes she’s like, “Dude, why do you keep putting jelly beans inside of me? I can’t do anything with this sh*t.” Me: “Bwahaha!” [keeps eating jelly beans]. Sometimes I’m like, “Why do you have to be all jiggly wiggly?” and she’s like, “So what? Deal with it,” and I’m like, “I hate you.”
There have been rough times between us, and there have been rougher. Since high school, my stomach has always been the part of my body that I've felt most insecure about; the anatomical representative, so-to-speak, of a wealth of body image issues. During unhealthy bouts of dieting, I'd examine my midsection in the mirror, my appraisal of its flatness determining a good or bad day. These days, I usually judge my days by the events that transpire within them, and I eat as many candy beans as I damn well please. But disassociating from the toxic desire to be that thinner version of myself has been a far more difficult task than I ever imagined it would be. I like to think of myself as intelligent enough to at least know the difference between "affect" and "effect," and perhaps carry on a moderately informed conversation about the sorry state of the current election. How can it be, then, that over the years I'd so thoroughly convinced myself that my stomach was a measurement of my personal value?
Which is actually part of why, two weeks ago, I decided to try out the infamous "8 Minute Abs" video from the early '90s. Maybe the urge came from some underlying desire for the six-pack I'd so often aspired to wear like a body-suit, or maybe I just have too much time on my hands, but I was genuinely curious to see if such an old relic of a video might reinvigorate my otherwise-atrophied abdominals. I hadn’t crunched anything besides cereal in months. The video itself held a bit of an allure, without the SoulCycle-CrossFit-PureBarre trappings of our modern age — why not return to exercise basics with some simple sit-ups and leg lifts? And I loved that it was "8 minutes." In eight minutes, you can cook pasta. I could do this workout while I waited for pasta.
I followed the "8 Minute Abs" regimen (no dietary changes or other major bouts of exercise, to control for variables) every day for two weeks. Granted, I didn’t have huge expectations. Perhaps a ghost of an ab might appear, perhaps I’d gain a sense of accomplishment from working out at least eight minutes every day. Two weeks isn’t that long, but in total it added up to 112 minutes of abdominal work — 112 more minutes than I would be performing under normal circumstances. Plus, the instructor, actor Jaime Brenkus, possessed so much unbridled enthusiasm, from a time when Bowie was still alive and Trump was just a silly rich person. My expectations might’ve been low, but my hopes were high.
First, I'm loving this video. A shot of a weeping willow dangling over a pond, the title “:08 Min. Abs” swooping in over what sounds like an electronic Casio pre-set. Cut to our instructors: two very white men and an equally white woman clad in bright blue spandex, lying on mats placed upon grass. “Hey gang! Welcome to your eight minute abs workout,” Brenkus says, along with a disclaimer that this workout is entirely safe if done properly. Two minutes in, after three straight minutes of basic and oblique crunches, I’m remembering that abdominal work necessarily involves pain, one similar to menstrual cramps, or perhaps a duller version of a kidney stone. “This will never hurt you!” Jaime reassures me, but I can’t quite seem to agree. I reach the end of the eight minutes, though, with a sense of accomplishment.
But it's taking this photo that took me most off-guard. Yes, I'm doing this for Science, and this photo is my Data. But I'd never been into body selfies, and this photo shoot reminds of hundreds of bad Tinder profiles I'd swiped left on. Also, this was going to be on the Internet, for People to See. Could I ever live down the shame of baring my midriff to the world? In this picture I feel naked, exposed. My eyebrows are lifted in shock and surprise, as if my face can't hide its embarrassment for the rest of me — embarrassment for taking this photo in the first place, as well as for its future publication. Why is a stomach anything to be embarrassed about, I wonder? The shot feels like an act of vanity, and a foolish one at that. "Hey guys, check out this super hot baguette storage space that is my body!"
By the third day, my soreness is gone and I've fallen into the rhythm of the workout. It's quite soothing, actually, like an episode of Law and Order SVU : crunches, toe touches, push throughs, leg pushes, curls. Nothing revolutionary, but then again I can't say I've ever even thought to do a push through before. Let alone a curl. Eight minutes has proven to be an achievable commitment thus far.
And I'm still feeling weird about the whole stomach photo thing. At this point there's no physical change after just 24 total minutes of crunching. Plus, this form of "physical appraisal" is taking me back to some bad times when I really cared what my stomach looked like in the mirror and would have a good or bad day based on my self-judgement. I wonder, how do I feel about this part of my body now? Am I ready to accept my stomach as it is? Do I really want to look like those doofuses in spandex, working furiously for Miami Vice-style perfection under a weeping willow?
At this point, Jaime's pissing me off a bit. "These exercises are safe, effective, and they are fun and they work!" Jaime says. I curl and scoff, muting the video in protest, eschewing the elevator music for Missy Elliot's "Work It". It makes for jolting mashup, culturally speaking.
From this photo, though, I glean two things: 1) my room is a trainwreck, and 2) my one-size-fits-all drawstring pajama pants that I stole from my brother are certainly my most flattering clothing item at the moment (also, love working out in pajamas). Check out those abs! I'm feeling fairly positive today, and I think my stomach is a great part of me. It digests all of my foods and connects my ribcage to my hips. Plus, it has that fun hole in the middle that once connected me by skin-string to my mother in utero. How cool is that!
My first week of "8 Minute Abs" completed, and I can honestly say that I feel a little nuts at this point. It's as if I've descended into a Saved by the Bell episode, except a very boring one where three unknown characters do toe touches lying next to each other. The exercises are now easy and I feel like I'm asleep while doing them. I'm now convinced that this is a workout meant to be done just once for eight minutes, then cast aside for all eternity. "See you in 24 hours!" Jaime says (or mouths, now that I've muted him), and I've the urge to respond to his thumbs up with a middle finger.
My stomach's not looking so different, but I'm kind of feeling different about it. Strangely, I'm more comfortable taking this picture now; it's more out of an anthropological curiosity than any wish to measure so-called "progress." I've been ogling my bod in the mirror so frequently these days — something I generally avoided in the past — that I'm starting to see my stomach's particularity. It's bumps and divots, the pleasantly-plump doughboy inny I'm sporting. That six-pack, I know it's no longer something I want to aspire to. What's so wrong with what I've got going on down there right now?
Soldiering on like the good samaritan I am, or perhaps it's more in the vein of an Ahabian obsession: I have to see this through to the end. No doubt about it, "8 Min. Abs" is repetitive AF, and I am bored bored bored. I'm tempted to try another ab workout, just for some variety, some spice in my life. It really just feels like Jaime Brenkus is making love to me in missionary every day for eight minutes (and I wouldn't put it past him )— but I remain faithful. Plus, a different workout might be harder, and I'm in no mood.
Is that an ab I see in the mirror? Ah nope, it's just a croissant. But it's funny, now that these photos have become routine I'm no longer scandalized my the sight of my own tum-tum, or even the idea that it might grace the pages of the Interwebs. Why did I feel like this project would be akin to showing the world pics of my cooch? Free the nipple, free the bum, free the midsection!
Counting down the minutes until liberation (24), and wondering what I'll do with these eight minutes of my day once I have them back. Maybe I'll clean my room, I think. Or maybe I'll just add them to my shower. Oh look, my pasta is ready!
Funny thing is, with all this photo-taking and stomach-staring, I'd almost forgotten that I might actually feel different after exerting some core strength on a regular basis. Today I can actually feel some muscles developing, underneath that lovely layer of flesh that keeps me warm at night. What a novel idea, exercising to feel better — and I realize that not once does Brenkus mention any perceived benefit beyond a change in appearance. Why do we do crunches anyway if they don't make us feel better?
"Why am I still doing this?" I wonder at every toe touch. "What is the point?"
I take my daily photo, and I realize that this lack of purpose comes from my complete apathy to changing the shape of my stomach. I like my stomach, as is. There are more interesting things I can do with it than these exercises, like feed it. Or I could stop thinking about my stomach as a cut of meat I'm eventually going to hawk: it's a part of my whole body, so why not engage my body as a whole in movement instead of flattering my belly with this undeserved attention?
I finish my last isolated curl of the year, proclaiming "No, Jaime, I will NOT see you in 24 hours," and punching my fist in the air. No way, no how, maybe for a million dollars you could get me to do a crunch again. A cool million.
And here, my belly's looking delicious. I'd eat a hot egg sandwich off of that baby.
I began this experiment with the hopes of reconnecting with the muscles of my middle, and I guess you could say it worked. In a perhaps not-so-surprising turn of events, Jaime Brenkus turned me off crunches, curls, and all other forms of lying on my floor while squeezing my abs in different directions (at least for a good long while). Because as interesting as it can be to add a new kind of movement to an exercise routine, anything this boring and repetitive becomes disheartening and unsustainable for me.
On a more positive note, taking a photo of my stomach every day transformed what could be an act of vanity or physical assessment into an act of self-love. Throughout my life, I expect and hope that my stomach will change shapes; expand, contract, maybe play house to a baby. If I'm lucky enough, it'll get old, wrinkly, and quite flabby. And I want to love my stomach, every part of myself, through it all. I'm done with critiquing the external against unattainable — and in my opinion, undesirable — standards.
If washboard abs are your jam, if crunches are your bread and butter, by all means, dig in. Jam is my jam. And if you're lucky, you'll get a glimpse of my midriff in the summer time, lotioned up or crop-topping. She loves the sun, I love her, and I give her what she wants.
Images: Jane Brendlinger (8), Giphy (3)